Dialogue is key to ensuring that buyers are able to manage their travel programmes effectively, says Amon Cohen
Corporate travel communication has moved up a couple of gears since the beginning of the decade. Travellers increasingly need to be influenced - rather than compelled - to follow policy, and the opportunity to woo them has improved radically with the adoption of new media such as social networking. Now travel managers can talk with their travellers instead of at them.
KEEPING CHANNELS OPEN
So much for the theory – but how does it translate into practice? Buying Business Travel spoke to three professionals who are using pioneering communication initiatives in their travel programmes to impressive effect. Strikingly, while technology plays a major part in their thinking, and willingness to invest by their companies also helps, what emerges as overridingly important is a sincere wish to engage openly with travellers.
When employees start following travel policy because they want to – not because they have to – everyone wins.
What the company does: Technology
Lead travel communications person: Susan Baig, global employee engagement manager, MS Travel (Microsoft’s travel team)
In the realm of traveller communications, Microsoft may be considered in a league of its own. Not only does it own Yammer, the social media network for businesses that the company uses to converse with its travellers, but the Microsoft travel team also includes a full-time comms specialist. UK-based global employee engagement manager Susan Baig joined the company in 2012 with no previous experience of corporate travel other than as a traveller herself. Instead, pretty much her entire career has been in marketing and communications, including ten years as a marketing manager with HSBC, and a stint in internal communications and change management with Ernst & Young.
Baig’s skills include web development, which has given her an insight into the mind of the average Microsoft employee (“I speak geek,” she says) and she also credits a career break teaching English in Asia for fostering her ability to talk to the business. “It helped me see the value of communications and how much easier it is to absorb information conveyed in plain English,” she says. “I learned how important visuals are, too.”
Since Microsoft has 60,000 travellers clocking up 1.5 billion air miles and spending over £500 million annually, one can understand why the company’s 20-strong travel management team considered it worthwhile hiring a comms expert. “The more you connect with travellers, the more receptive and engaged they are,” says Baig.
For her, the crucial psychological benefit is that two-way communication provides reassurance. It makes travellers confident they will be listened to and helped if the travel programme is not meeting their needs. Given that any travel programme is a compromise between cost management and employee comfort, Baig believes communication is what bridges the gap between these two, sometimes conflicting, imperatives.
Yammer has been a key component of Microsoft’s two-way conversation, both for disseminating information to travellers and listening to their responses. Using a social network is also less intrusive than email. It points employees to information without forcing them to read it. “A hotel RFP [request for proposal] initiative is not the type of communication we would send to every employee because it doesn’t affect all of them,” Baig says. “Those who read it can pass on the message within their relevant group.”
Given that social networks encourage commentary on internal matters, some travel managers may fear their potential to spread dissent. Baig strongly feels otherwise. “When we introduced Yammer, employees were given a voice they didn’t have before, so the first thing they did was complain,” she says. “You have to meet that openly and transparently, and make sure you respond. We soon found that a forum like this was a great way to get our reasoning across, such as explaining why we had chosen another hotel due to cost issues or quality standards, for example.
“We also realised employees would have been having those moans anyway. Once they understood they could use Yammer for far more than complaining, we started to see them generate ideas and positive feedback.”
If travel managers are going to use a social network, however, they should make sure they use it properly – which means responding to feedback, says Baig. It is a principle that she believes applies to all forms of communication: if you’re going to use them, exploit them fully. It is, therefore, critical to draw up a project plan which details who the relative audiences are and how to communicate with them. Another useful medium, Baig finds, is the online booking tool. As well as general announcements on the home page, more targeted updates are delivered when a destination is selected, such as the removal of a hotel from the programme or changes to visa arrangements.
Baig also stresses the need for constant evaluation, such as monitoring hits and ‘likes’ on the social networking tool. She also uses a customer relationship management tool to track traveller queries and feedback.
Few companies’ travel teams are large enough to merit a comms specialist, but Baig is convinced that some of the bigger ones will follow Microsoft’s lead. She also believes more companies will improve the formal communications skills of their travel managers. She suggests managers seek specialist training, especially to learn how to use digital media and the linguistic styles appropriate for them. “It’s not just about paper and email any more,” she says. “Communications have changed so much in a very short time and we are all having to learn to adapt.”
What the company does: Global bio/pharmaceutical development and launch services
Lead travel communications person: Benjamin Park, senior manager, procurement and travel, working with Mike Cox, managing partner, Loyalty Curve Consulting
If each of the case studies for this article were an episode from Sesame Street, then the letter of the day for Parexel International would undoubtedly be ‘S’. The company deploys a formal communication process devised by travel management consultancy Loyalty Curve Consulting, called ‘SSSSquare methodology’, which is based on two groups of words beginning with that letter.
The first group of S’s refers to the four targets of the travel programme, namely: ‘savings’, ‘service’, ‘safety’ and ‘sustainability’. The second refers to the creation and communication of data that will drive traveller behaviour towards those goals.
The data S’s start with ‘science’: identifying and sourcing data to prove or disprove a hypothesis about how the travel programme can be improved. That is followed by the ‘story’, which means providing context to the data, understanding the challenges its conclusions raise for the organisation, and then finding a reason why travellers and other stakeholders should care. Finally, there is ‘sales pitch’: communicating a proposed solution within the organisation.
It may sound highly formulaic, but Benjamin Park and Mike Cox say their sibilant structure succeeds superbly. They cite the example of improving what travel management companies (TMCs) call the ‘attach rate’ – persuading more travellers to book a hotel at the same time they book their flight. Based on data from Parexel’s TMC, the science told them fewer than half of trips involving at least one night away had hotel bookings attached to them. This knowledge led them to create the story that the company was missing considerable volume in hotel supplier negotiations because travellers must be booking through other channels. As a result, too many travellers were booking non-preferred hotels or, even more frustratingly, booking preferred hotels but without the company being able to capture, and negotiate on, the data.
Park and Cox responded by communicating a sales pitch to travellers. If employees booked their hotel through the designated TMC, they explained, it would help Parexel improve its savings. However, Park and Cox always like to find one of the four strategic S’s that will also appeal to travellers’ self-interest, so, says Park, “we told them they would improve their own security because all preferred hotels are vetted. For example, no preferred properties have rooms that open directly on to a parking area. We want them to use the hotel programme not simply because it is in policy.”
As a result of this communication, the attach rate has climbed from 48 per cent to 58 per cent. Cox is the first to acknowledge there is more work to do, and would like to boost the figure to 75 per cent but, he says, the improvement is already helping to tip the balance in some cities where Parexel lacked sufficient room night volume to attract a supplier deal.
Park and Cox usually have three science, story and sales pitch projects going at any one time, believing that any more would risk attention fatigue. Each project is prepared with a plan detailing who will communicate, who they will communicate to, and how. The recipient of the sales pitch is not always the traveller. Park and Cox prepare key performance indicators (KPIs) for cost centre managers to show how well they are meeting behavioural goals compared with other departments. “No one likes being in the bottom half of the list,” says Park. However, there must be a tangible objective to the KPIs. “If you are not selling a solution and asking for action, there is no point working on it,” he adds.
What the company does: Metals manufacturer
Lead travel communications person: Rosy Burnie, global headquarters office manager
To readers of a certain age, The Wall is a pretentious concept album by 20th-century dinosaur band Pink Floyd. For Luvata’s Rosy Burnie, however, it is a social media tool that has revolutionised the way she communicates with her travellers. The Wall is Luvata’s internal comms equivalent of Twitter, and employees are encouraged to use it to ask questions and write their opinions about company matters.
Like Baig at Microsoft, Burnie has not found the potential for negative commentary in social networks problematic. Instead, she considers The Wall invaluable not only for spreading her messages but for taking the pulse of employee thinking. “No matter how much data you receive, you can’t get a full picture of travellers’ habits unless you communicate with them,” she says. “Someone might have different ideas to you, but you shouldn’t be afraid to have that discussion – it may make you re-think.”
When talking to Burnie, it quickly comes across that the Luvata corporate culture is one of trust and engagement, which is why two-way communication through a medium such as The Wall is highly appropriate. There is also an emphasis in internal communications on lightness of touch and humour. For example, Burnie publishes quizzes about the travel programme on the intranet, with prizes being the tackiest tourist souvenirs she can dredge up from around the world. Competition to win this tat, she reports, is surprisingly stiff.
The goodwill fostered by her positive approach comes into its own when there are tougher aspects of the travel programme to sell. For example, Luvata, which allows business class for long-haul travel, has started routing most of its flying between Europe and Asia via Helsinki with Finnair. “Travellers need to understand what you are doing,” she says. “Our flights to Asia were typically costing £4,000-£5,000, but they are 50 per cent cheaper via Helsinki, and there is only a brief stopover. If you explain that, people accept it because they know we are going through a lean process. They have to take it on the chin, but at the same time you don’t want to upset people, so a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude is not the way to talk to them. You have to explain why.”
Burnie also finds ways to cushion the impact of changes that will adversely affect travellers. She has been quick to tell UK-based employees that Finnair is a Oneworld partner and that, therefore, its mileage scheme is linked with British Airways’ programme. Similarly, there is like-for-like recognition of Gold cardholders.
Burnie spearheads the travel strategy but she does not work alone. She has an excellent relationship with Luvata’s head of internal communications, who is an intranet expert. In addition, Burnie operates a global network of influencers who champion the travel programme on her behalf in their national markets. She takes soundings from her network before making major changes, working with them to prepare for questions that might be asked locally. Once a programme change is initiated, Burnie leaves much of the in-country communication to her influencers. “A Chinese person will communicate to another Chinese person better than I could, and it helps that they see their colleagues daily,” she says.
Burnie also emphasises cultural sensitivity of another kind, towards employees of acquired subsidiaries, whose travel programmes may have been very different from the one they are subject to now. Once again, she says, influencers are critical to acclimatise the new travellers to the Luvata travel programme and warn of potential difficulties with acceptance.